The Scandal of Isaac

Pentecost + 4A 2-7-17 Aldgate and Crafers Gen 22 1-14 Ps 13 Rm 6 12-23 Mt 10 40-42

Christians call this story “the sacrifice of Isaac” and Jews call it “the Aqedah” (the “binding” of Isaac). It’s always scandalised us. Is it a story of an abusive God; of a deluded Abraham; of religious violence at its worst? Or is it about God and Abraham discovering mutual vulnerability? Many scholars say it’s essentially a tale of the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. That’s because of the mention of Moriah, named [elsewhere only] in 2 Chr 3.1 as the mountain where Solomon built the Temple. So the sacrifice of the ram instead of Isaac at Moriah is for Jews the prototype of all the animal sacrifices to happen on the Temple Mount – Moriah.

For Christians, the sacrifice of the beloved son has obvious resonance with the death of Jesus, so Gen 22 is appointed as one of the readings for the Easter Vigil. For very early Christians, Abraham’s obedience – being ready to sacrifice his son – was one of the greatest examples of his faith: (Heb 11:17, 19) By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac … He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead. Paul portrays Abraham’s obedience as a model of faith against all odds, (Rom 4.32). And of course there’s the sense that this story foreshadows God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ.

But this brings us back to the scandal of this story, and the most obvious question: Has God ever possibly condoned child sacrifice? Anyone might quite reasonably ask this question of people of faith in our time of violent religious extremism.

The answer is a firm no. We know from the witness of the prophets and even from this very edgy story that God does not demand child sacrifice. Indeed, God abhors it (Isa 57.5; Jer 7.31). My guess is that Abraham was only able to imagine God might command this because child sacrifice was widely practised by other religions in his time. But God stopped him before he could go through with it; Abraham had passed his test.

Why the test, though?

God had promised Abraham he’d be the father of a great nation. Yet he and Sarah had endured long years of waiting. So they contrived the just-in-case birth of Ishmael. But at long last, the impossible happened; they rejoiced in the birth of a boy they called “Laughter.” Then at Sarah’s insistence, Abraham reluctantly casts out his first son, Ishmael with his mother, the servant woman Hagar. Was this like David Attenborough’s African shoebills – birds who, when a chick looks likely to survive, abandon their other chick as surplus to requirements? Was the exile of Hagar and Ishmael an assertion of self-sufficiency by Sarah and Abraham? Our recent census results show us that our culture of self-sufficiency is linked with an increase in the number of people who say they have no faith.

So is that the reason for this test? Does God need to see that Abraham won’t go down this track? Or Does Abraham need to discover this in himself? Either way, we see God demand a most horrible thing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you” (22:2). And Abraham and Isaac set off.

Three days into the journey, Abraham loads the wood for the sacrificial fire onto Isaac, and Isaac says; …we have fire, and wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham, in agony, says, or maybe he prays, God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.

They reached the place of sacrifice. Abraham built an altar. He bound his son Isaac … Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son (22:9-10). Finally, the Lord cried out to him urgently, “Abraham, Abraham!” And Abraham, with a mixture relief and hope said what he always says; “Here I am.”

But still, why the test?

Abraham and his descendants are the means by which God had chosen to bless the whole world (Gen 12:3). Could God be wondering; Have I made a mistake?

Abraham hadn’t always shown integrity where his personal security was at stake – the wife-sister deceit about Sarah in Egypt (12.10-20). So maybe God wanted to know whether Abraham, now securely in possession of his own son, might imagine he didn’t need the Lord any more. On Wednesday we saw how Abraham rejected God’s promise of wonderful posterity as he still had no child of his own (15.1-4). Might his changed situation now make him forget it was God who gave them their miracle child in the first place? We know self-sufficiency can kill a people’s faith. But Abraham does pass this most excruciating of tests: Now I know that you revere God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

The story of the Aqedah reminds us that everything we have and everything we might hope to have comes ultimately from God.

Do you remember how the story finishes? Abraham names the place of the test the Lord will provide. The Hebrew – yhwh yireh יִרְאֶה יְהֹוָה – more literally means the Lord will see. This means Hebrew has a similar word play in it to the word we use to translate it, provide. Provide is Latin for see before. I can imagine God saying to that Angel who was sent to stay Abraham’s knife-hand; That boy needs rescuing. Would you please see to it?

Finally, the people who wrote this story were exiles hoping to be released. I wonder if they chose the word see as a prayer that God would see them and restore them from their living death just as Isaac was rescued. Would God see to them too?

We are adopted children; we’re distant from the events we read about, yet intimately involved. We’ve been called to remember again today what the Son actually did go through, for us; what our dear Father has gone through. And so we know with certainty, the Lord has seen to us. Amen




There is a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this:

Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”


The rabbis imagine the scene:

God said, “Take your son.”

And Abraham said, “I have two sons.”

He answered him, “Your only son.”

He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.”

God said, “The one whom you love.”

Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?”

God answered, “Isaac.”


Quoted by Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.